The Sing Off Live Tour Hits NYC

The Sing Off has always been a carefully choreographed opportunity for the world to see what a cappella music can do, both stylistically and in a more meaningful sense. It is a show which offers a glimpse into and an invitation to join the tribe of people who enjoy all vocal music to an almost irrational degree. While the dwindling ratings with each progressive season might seem paltry to network executives, the several million people around the country who tuned in to the most recent “season” still exponentially outnumber the highest estimate of the proud members of our little tribe.

The Sing Off Live Tour which is now working its way across the United States is also carefully choreographed, though with less age and gender diversity than its television counterpart. Instead, the tour offers a 100-120 minute show featuring three all-male headlining groups of varying styles.  Sort of.  Ok, they are all male groups performing pop/rock music, and the singers are generally between the ages of 24 and 40. However, their performing styles are indeed quite different, and we will have accept that this was the extent of the headlining diversity on the tour. Yes, each city features a different opening group, and many of those groups include women or groups with members that aren’t in the 24-40 age demographic, but the opening groups tend to get only 10-15 minutes.  Regardless, the three headlining groups are exceedingly talented, so it would be impossible to argue that any one did not deserve to be included.*

I was pleased to catch the show in New York City last Thursday, February 19, at the Best Buy Theater. Though I can only guess that the frigid temperatures were to blame, there was a noticeable lack of energy in the crowd leading up to the show and during the performance by opening group Traces.

Luckily, The Exchange kicked off the show with a ton of noise and energy, and things started to pick up shortly into their set. Though they are technically the group with the least experience singing together (certainly in temporal terms, possibly in terms of total number of performances), one would never know it. This “super-group” of former contestants, arrangers, etc. from the show put out a set of modern, edgy, aggressive, polished music. The Exchange is the rarest of commodities in vocal music, a group in which nearly every member could carry them or another group as a lead soloist. I have never heard Richard Steighner sing a solo (gauntlet: thrown), but Aaron Sperber and Jamal Moore showed off their powerful solo voices in season 3 of the show, Christopher Diaz has won solo awards at ICCAs, and Alfredo Austin appeared several times on The Daily Show singing soulfully behind Jon Stewart and has been featured in solos for groups like Hyannis Sound and Overboard. Any one of those 4 could carry a group, but they all took turns showing off (and I mean that in a good way) Thursday night. Continue reading…

Blue Jupiter Has Serious Skills

Two weeks ago, I finally got a chance to see Blue Jupiter perform and I left with one overwhelming thought: THAT was a professional performance.

It was fun, energetic, and polished. It felt like a variation on the well-established, very successful formula employed by Rockapella. I know, there are those in the a cappella community who don’t want to talk about Rockapella anymore, and I can understand that. After seeing them perform more than 15 times between 1998 and maybe 2006, even opening for them with my Potsdam Pointercounts in 2000, I reached that point. I felt like I had seen everything Rockapella had to offer, and was ready to move on for new, different groups. That being said, Rockapella is a very successful touring group because they hit a number of different check-mark boxes in every performance, regardless of the venue or the audience.  What they do works for a large swath of America (not to mention Japan and other parts of the world where they are popular) and an equally large range of age groups.

In the years since I wandered away from Rockapella, I had seen only one group hit many if not all of the same successful performance techniques: The Swingles.  My love for their performances is well-documented on Twitter and probably throughout this blog as well, but I’ll just point out that they are immensely talented performers who are comfortable singing a broad range of often difficult repertoire and engaging an audience with equal success.

Take 6 hit many of the same marks when I saw them at The Blue Note, but I did feel that they lost me on some of the songs because they do a particular genre of music especially well, and may not appeal with the same efficacy to every audience member. I adore Pentatonix, and was really impressed with their concert in 2013, but they are clearly aiming for the under 50 crowd with all the lights and heavy bass. Their show is a different animal altogether. The same goes for Duwende, MICappella, and Postyr, among other favorites. I enjoy seeing all of these groups perform, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they hit on that broad appeal like Rockapella and The Swingles.

Then came Blue Jupiter.

You ever see a local theater production, where everyone on stage knows their lines and hits their marks, but you’re just not immersed until one individual walks onto the stage and just takes over the room? And immediately, you think “Oh, this is it. This is something different.” The same is true when you go to see a serious rock band and they come on after 2 or 3 less experienced opening acts.  They get on the stage with presence and purpose and immediately set the tone for the evening.

Here are the various keys to a successful, broad, professional performance, as exhibited by Blue Jupiter in Garden City, New York in mid-November.

First, Blue Jupiter jumped on stage and began singing background parts while…

1) introducing the band, each member taking a little flourish or solo upon being introduced. Yes, I’ve seen many groups do this kind of thing, but they often wait until late in the set or even a few songs in. I enjoyed the fast introduction, even though I know about each member of the group. They mixed in some humor, particularly with Mr. Minkoff’s introduction of lone female singer Diana Preisler (“You may know her from the streets of New York City…er…”).

And just like that, they were familiar. They were friendly, funny, and relatable. This was enhanced by the fact that…

2) they were smilingengaging each other and the audience at the same time. This sounds like an unimportant detail, but I assure you- it has a significant impact on the audience. I looked around and saw people smiling with them, and that is yet another way Blue Jupiter connected with their audience. I have performed in many different places, from street corners and plazas to concert halls, and I readily admit that smiling while singing was often more difficult than singing the notes for me. It seems like it should be easy, but when I think about many of the groups I have seen over the years, I realize that I was not alone with this obstacle.

As Blue Jupiter moved through their set, it also became clear that they would not have any problem with… Continue reading…

AcaVids- MOVE with Ball In The House

As crazy as it may sound, this Jersey girl has driven up to Boston (just for the night!) to see Ball In The House, so when I found out that they were performing less than 40 minutes away, there was no way I would miss it!

After a long day at school, I was energized by the prospect of seeing the new line up perform. Good friend Montario ‘Monty’ Hill, from DC, recently joined their ranks, adding his soulful baritone to the group. I had the pleasure of watching him perform with DC-based group, The Lobby, at SingStrongDC earlier in the year and he blew the audience away, helping to clinch the win of the Aca Idol competition. Cole Sherratt, their newest tenor joining from Houston, started singing and writing songs at the age of 13. Lastly, I couldn’t wait to hear James C. Jones, their new bass and former member of a group called The Fix. Little known fact, he may or may not semi know how to use nunchucks. Perhaps this skill will make it to the stage one day! 😉

They opened with an energetic 90s throwback, ‘This Is How We Do It’.

After a few songs, an original ‘Set The Mood’ was included.

One of my favorite songs that Ball In The House covers (and better yet off-mic!) is ‘Falling Slowly’.

For more vids from this show, please check my playlist here.

A little over a month ago, Ball In The House released a seven track EP, titled MOVE. (Click here or here for full track listing.) I finally picked up my copy at the end of the show in PA. I proceeded to listen to it every single day, multiple times a day, for fifteen days straight. 😎 If you haven’t gotten your copy yet, or if you’re looking for a great holiday gift, you’re in luck! We are GIVING AWAY a SIGNED copy of MOVE to one lucky winner! See this page for entry. GOOD LUCK!

Hope to see you at a show soon,
Tara :-)
@OooImSoExcited

SoJam 2013- Rockin’ in Raleigh

On Nov. 8-10, Raleigh, North Carolina was pulsing with a cappella for the eleventh annual SoJam festival. This was my first year attending, and aside from some personal issues which forced me to miss the after party Saturday night and catch a super-early flight home on Sunday (more on that below), it was a tremendous experience.

I have been to BOSS twice and VoCALnation once, but neither quite matches up in size or scope to SoJam. The sheer number of people walking around and attending workshops on Saturday, as well as attending the Friday night concert, was impressive.

First, let me just note- I had intended for this weekend to be a series of announcements from Acatribe, with the revealing of a new logo (see above, and special thanks to Andrew Kirschner for his tireless work on the designs), a new visual approach to the blog, and most importantly, the brand new vocal editing service Acatribe Productions!

However, I faced obstacles with each of these rollouts, and the weeks leading up to SoJam were a constant series of headaches from technical problems to logistical/business problems, to personal issues. I printed business cards (how quaint!), some swag with the new logo, and then never got a chance to really promote. As you can see, the logo is now official, and the overhaul of the blog design is nearly complete. The Production company is very close to opening for business, and I’ll certainly do more promotion of that when the time is ready. My point in sharing all of this is that I had very high expectations and hopes for SoJam in a professional context, and many of them were dashed before I even arrived.

So, what about as a fan and festival attendee? A whole other story.

Friday night’s concert had just begun when I walked into the large Memorial “Auditorium” that evening, and it was loud inside. Eh440 was opening up with a tune before the competition began, and the energy in the room was high. UCD Mix, who won the 2013 BOSS collegiate competition with these sets, led off the competition. Unfortunately, I haven’t found any video from their set online yet, but I can tell you that they absolutely killed it. They brought the same high level of creativity, musicality, and storytelling (along with some props) which really just made the other groups look primitive by comparison. I could talk about the remaining groups, but frankly, they weren’t all that impressive. In fact, I think the overall caliber of the performances from the remaining 5 groups was lesser than at BOSS 2013 or BOSS 2012. FSU’s Reverb had some nice moments, and the crowd was definitely cheering them on, but I think part of it was the audience wanting to pull for someone else to challenge Mix, when it was so clear from the beginning that this would be a nearly impossible task. That’s just my opinion, and of course others may have felt differently. Also, in fairness to the other competitors, their performances were still at a far higher level than most college groups could achieve even 5 years ago, though some performers did struggle a bit with pitch. Also, it was apparently BELTING NIGHT!! because each group had at least one female lead who practically shrieked out a solo. I was really dying for more nuance and subtlety as the competition went along, but there wasn’t a whole lot to be found.

Mix thus won their second CASA festival competition in the past seven months. Pretty impressive, guys!

In fact, here’s their Sing Off audition video (it’s a shame they didn’t make it, I think they would have been very entertaining and competitive).

Eh440 entertained the crowd while the judges deliberated in between rounds, and they sounded great. It seems like they are still discovering or cementing their identity, something which they alluded to in this interview before SoJam.

I was exhausted and famished that night from 9 hours of travel, as was Pat (who worked his last day at his job before he begins working for Jean Georges at a new restaurant in Westchester, NY), so when the concert let out after 11 pm we went looking for food and ended up at a little bar called Woody’s which had decent burgers and beer. I was disappointed we missed the after party, but I figured (wrongly) that I’d be that much more ready to go Saturday night.

Saturday morning, we headed over to the NCSU campus for a morning of workshops and AcaBombs. When we arrived, I looked around and realized the difference between SoJam and the other festivals I’ve attended. There were not one or two, but four simultaneous AcaBombs during each break, which is CRAZY…and awesome. We saw Jaded perform, and then I had to decide on what workshops to attend: always a challenge. I decided to try something new and attend a workshop on Barbershop music called “What We Can Learn From Barbershop.” Run by Matt Woodward, Bill Adams, and Matt Gorman, this was one of the best workshops I’ve seen at a CASA festival. They talked about why barbershop music is important to contemporary a cappella performers, citing Deke Sharon’s article (here) which called it the “martial art” of a cappella. More specifically, they talked about the importance of tuning, vowels, phrasing, and so on.  Adams talked about the math and physics of tuning and why you should absolutely NOT be rehearsing around a piano. He has a Doctor of Musical Arts and probably knows what he’s talking about.  They talked about practice habits, including practicing unison singing (which I guarantee virtually no contemporary a cappella groups are doing on a regular basis). I thought it was great, and I truly hope they can offer a similar workshop at future festivals. Great workshop guys, you inspired me to check out the Barbershop Harmony Society.

Then, outside, FSU’s All Night Yahtzee did this

After lunch, I sat on the panel celebrating RARB‘s 20th anniversary, where we discussed older albums which have held up over time and some which have not. Mike Marcus (our technical director) revealed the much improved new format (“2.0”) which will be coming soon, and there was even cake! If you have read more than 5 album reviews from RARB over the years, you’ve proven that you value it as a resource (really, THE resource) for reviews on recorded a cappella music. And if this is true, you should really donate to help us make it a better resource. Here’s the link for the donation page- http://rarb.org/2for20.html -every little donation helps.

Ok, moving on, I next attended the workshop on listening and tuning with Avante, a vocal jazz septet from North Carolina. This was a perfect supplement to the barbershop workshop, as they also talked about and demonstrated specific types of problems you may encounter with your group’s blend and tuning, and how to fix them. It was pretty amazing to watch Kevin Badanes take some singers from the audience, have them shuffle around in configurations singing a short passage, and learn who was better off singing where in the group. It was informative and entertaining, with a cameo from Tom Anderson (singing an arrangement he prepared for Avante, with Avante).

The final workshop of the day for me had to be Essential Listening with Ben Stevens, which I have heard much about over the years but never yet attended.

Wow.

I can honestly say I haven’t thought or felt (in a communal sense) that much about music in a long time. The reality is that the things the “Professor” (as he is often called) pointed out are especially true for me, with a day job, a family, and a lot of extra-curricular responsibilities (including this blog, RARB, CASA, and this new editing business). I don’t have a lot of time to really sit and just listen to music, but I am going to make more of an effort after that experience. Bravo to the ladies of Jaded and the FSU Acabelles for their performances there as well.

Saturday evening was the professional showcase, which kicked off with Mix reprising part of their set from the night before. Despite the repetition, it was impressive and thrilling.

MICappella is a group I have been following for a long time, having featured them in an AcaVids segment before they had even appeared on The Sing Off China. I loved their EP and their album, and was really interested to see how they are in concert. They did not disappoint. From the beginning, they were entertaining, energetic, and they sounded great.

They were also funny, gracious, and versatile, even pulling off this Iron Maiden cover.

It was nice of the SoJam organizers to let MICappella do a long set considering the group flew halfway around the world to be there. In the past, some have suggested MICappella is similar to Pentatonix, what with the comparable Sing Off background and youth. I would suggest that MICappella has earned the right to be recognized for what they have accomplished, and for their own unique style which is not a mere carbon copy of Pentatonix’s sound. I thoroughly enjoyed their set, and I hope they make it back to the States soon with a performing stop in New York City.

If you want to learn more about MICappella, check out my interview with Peter Huang, the group’s excellent vocal percussionist, here.

Finally, it was time for the Swingle Singers. I’ve seen them perform twice before, and I am continually stunned at the level of precision, musicality, and intelligence in their sets. As with the last time I saw them, they began with the title track from their new album, “Weather to Fly,” which is a perfect introduction to what they do so well. Watch this video, note how they exchange parts and weave a colorful and warm tapestry from this Elbow tune.

I was pleased to see them do their unique cover of “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morissette, which is hugely entertaining.

And of course, as always, they bring class and cosmopolitan culture to each set.

I could write about their abundant skills (musicianship, stage presence, creativity, etc.) for several more paragraphs, but this post is getting (!) quite long, so let me just say- The Swingle Singers are one of the handful of groups in the world that can please all types of fans, all ages, in all venues. Simply put, they are the very best our performance style has to offer, and they earned each of the four standing ovations at SoJam. Also, from everything I have heard and seen, they are some of the most genuine, funny, and kind people in the business.

You can learn more about their recent experiences and what lies ahead for the Swingles in this interview I conducted with the lovely and talented Sara Brimer.

—-

Though I was very much looking forward to the after party Saturday night, I was starting to get concerned about my wife (who texted me that she was quite ill, and that she was not sure if she could care for the children in the morning) and ended up heading back to the hotel and working to book the earliest flight I could get, which took some time. I missed the after party, which is perhaps one of the most exciting parts about these festivals- socializing and celebrating with the other fans and the performers in a casual setting. (see my BOSS post for an example).

I was up at 5 am the next morning, on the road before 6 am, and on a plane before 7 am, so I missed the workshops on Sunday. I am very hopeful that this will be the first of many SoJams to come, and that future experiences will be healthy and untroubled by personal issues.

You can see another write-up of a first-time SoJammer Deborah Rosanwo right here at the Vocal Blog. She was also quite impressed by the whole experience. :-)

For now, I’m already getting excited for BOSS in April, and I hope to get reports from those who make it out to Los Angeles A Cappella Fest and the Texas A Cappella Celebration in March.

What were some of your favorite parts of SoJam 2013?

Cluster in Long Island (#italyinusa)

Last week, I finally got to see Cluster perform live. Coincidentally, it was my first time taking my 2-year-old and 5-year-old to an a cappella concert, and it seemed appropriate given the location at the Long Island Children’s Museum. Despite a 7:30 p.m. start time (when my kids normally go to bed), they actually made it through most of the show (my wife took them outside during the final number), and had a great time.

Now, I am typically pretty organized about preparing my thoughts after a concert, especially if I think I might review the show for this blog. Unfortunately, I was in the midst of a major work project-with-impending-deadline, and I was sitting next to two squirmy kids under the age of 6, so my ability to organize my thoughts was seriously hampered.

Here’s what I took from seeing Cluster live.

First, they immediately had to deal with adversity when at least one microphone was not working properly as they performed “Ti Sento” to open up the show. Check out why that could be problematic:

Right. In other words, it is a song which relies on, shall we say, some technology.

While the sound reinforcement situation was dealt with, the group opted to do two songs fully a cappella, meaning sans mikes.  Out of a mess of fuzz and distortion came this beautiful, precise, delicate sound which was simply stunning. For the fourth song, they were back on the microphones and I was immediately impressed with their ability to respond and roll with the punches. Definite bonus points for degree of difficulty.

As they worked their way into their set, I noticed a few things. First, the group is versatile. All three guys are legitimate vocal percussionists or beatboxers in their own right. The ladies can sing haunting descants, shredding guitar solos, and everything in between. And as a collective unit, they can do songs like this

and they can do this

with a whole lot of other styles mixed in. The best demonstration of this flexibility was probably their medley of songs spanning their career, with hits from various pop categories over the past 25 years, which followed a great Count Basie medley. The critical fact is that they managed to make the setlist feel cohesive. Some groups wander through styles, trying them on like ill-fitting clothes, but while Cluster chose things that didn’t necessary seem right together, they made it look good.

Though I was a bit surprised by the repeated use of medleys, which have become something of a critical dumping ground in the modern American a cappella community, I don’t think anyone would object to the way Cluster did it, demonstrating their skill across genres and their energy as well.

Speaking of energy, we must talk for a moment about Erik Bosio, who is, simply put, a star. He is the kind of performer you can’t stop watching, both because of his likable stage personality and his passionate singing, which extends to every part or instrument he is singing. The only other a cappella singer I can think of as demonstrative and invested is Austin Willacy, and that (from my perspective) is high praise indeed.

While I’m making comparisons, the only group I can recall seeing who so successfully covered a range of styles while maintaining a singular identity of sound is probably Take 6. Not too bad.

I also have to mention Cluster’s tremendous skill in the “DJ” segment of the show, challenging themselves to speed up or slow down dramatically as led by Bosio’s cues, all while staying remarkably in tune. Very cool, and the first time I have seen it used to with such success.

While I am frustrated at the lack of video out there from this US mini-tour (to better illustrate my points), and my own lack of specific set details (e.g., songs), I know I walked out very impressed with the group’s success given the high degree of difficulty imposed upon (with the sound problems) and chosen by (style span, VP battle, and the DJ effect) them.

I’d love to see them in New York City tonight at the Bitter End, but sadly I can’t make it. If you have a chance to catch them tonight or on the rest of this tour, I only have 2 words for you: DO IT.

I’d also like to briefly mention Satellite Lane, who opened for Cluster at the LI Children’s Museum show. I helped these guys put on a benefit concert last year for Sandy relief on Long Island, and I have to say they have come a long way in less than a year. I know they won audience favorite at the Harmony Sweepstakes in NYC, and though I wasn’t able to attend, I can see why. They brought some authentic charm to the stage with a mixture of quirky originals (like this), and covers which were both silly and fun.  I cannot tell you how long I have been waiting to hear a group use “It’s the End of the World As I Know It (And I Feel Fine)” by REM in a medley or mashup, and it was totally rewarding for me to hear it at last.  They started strong musically, experienced some pitch issues on a slower tune, but then bounced right back and did a great job of engaging both children and adults in the audience. Great job, guys!

If anyone got any video or pictures from this US mini-tour, please feel free to post links in the comments!